Popular Pop

From superheroes to Hello Kitty, comic relief makes its way into the art world this spring

For a movement reaching its half-century mark, Pop is looking remarkably spry this spring. At its roots is one of America's most enduring popular arts: comic books. Pop precursor Robert Rauschenberg collaged comics onto his mid-'50s combines (and obtained an oil version of Alley Oop from colleague Jasper Johns). Hot commercial illustrator Andy Warhol developed some of his earliest forays into "fine" art using superheroes; soon Roy Lichtenstein was dining out on his enlargements of panels swiped from love and war comics. One of the creators of this groundwork died in early January, landing his signature character, the Spirit, on the front page of the Times. From 1940 to 1952, Will Eisner cranked out Spirit stories for a weekly comic book distributed, at its peak, to over 5 million readers as a newspaper insert. When Eisner was on (and the remorseless weekly schedule drove him to employ a studio system rivaling that of Rubens, with the resultant fluctuations in quality), the adventures of his merely mortal, often grimly humorous crime fighter were some of the purest meldings of visuals and narrative ever achieved in any medium. The Will Eisner Retrospective (May 21-September 19, Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, 594 Broadway, 212-254-3511) is a career-spanning exhibit that will include original pages and covers, penciled panel breakdowns, and two complete stories from 1947, when Eisner was doing it all: scripts, pencils, and inks.

Of course, comics have their own antecedents: Mixing text and art goes back at least 3,000 years. Check out the massive Assyrian reliefs at the Met, celebrating the deeds of the king, with cuneiform script chiseled right across his stone image—ancient word balloons proclaiming his greatness. Slightly less propagandistic was Gustave Doré's 19th-century illustrated Bible; more lively were his engravings for Dante's Divine Comedy. New Yorkers should be pleased (or will roll their eyes) to discover that artist Sandow Birk (May 26-June 25, PPOW Gallery, 555 West 25th Street, 212-647-1044) is closing his contemporary adaptation of that 700-year-old epic poem by locating "Paradiso" in our fair city. ("Inferno" was L.A., while San Francisco hosted "Purgatorio.") At the end of "Paradiso," Dante was allowed a glimpse of God; we only get to look at Birk's mural-size oil of an autumnal, strangely bucolic Apple, along with his updated takes on Doré's classic visions of the three canticles.

H.C. Westermann (April 28-June 4, Lennon, Weinberg Inc., 514 West 25th Street, 212-941-0012) took a different tack on the vernacular. A marine who served in the Pacific during World War II, Westermann is justly famous for his "Death Ships" series, with its evocations of the surreal cruelties of war. This exhibition is a collection of drawings, woodcuts, and watercolors focusing on his women: mother/sister/wife/vamp/angel/demon/virgin/whore, all executed with a brio and fearlessness prefiguring underground comics. If Thomas Pynchon had wanted an illustrator for V's maniacal sailors and their paramours, Westermann would've been his man.

And proving that Pop has an ever expanding half-life, Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture (April 8-July 24, Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, 212-832-1155) name-checks the atomic bomb that incinerated Hiroshima. From the culture of cute exemplified by Hello Kitty to Mahomi Kunikata's cartoon painting of a little girl gorging on bloody meat, Japan's wildly popular anime and manga, by turns charming and dystopian, are becoming a global language. Takashi Murakami (maestro of "Superflat" paintings and those huge pneumatic eyeballs) curates this big group show, which he promises will traverse the contradictions within Japan's "unmoored, apolitical state." Of his own ostensibly cute characters, he has said, "I express hopelessness."

Nothing new there; the best Pop has always been serious business.

 
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